5 nonsense sayings/analogies about education

1. The Spiral Curriculum

tangledslinkyThis is a favourite, particularly in mathematics, and comes from a very sensible starting point. I prefer the idea of building a wall or a house. It makes sense that you need to secure one layer of bricks around the whole building before trying to build too high. The problem with the spiral idea is that it’s led to the nonsense of whistle-stop tours of subjects, and no-one worrying about securing knowledge because “we’ll come back to it next term”. The spiral is too tight and doesn’t actually achieve any height… just lots of circling.

The spiral has become a slinky. And a tangled one at that.

kindling2. Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. (supposedly by WB Yeats, but no source I can trace)

I can see what he was getting at here, but as is so often the case, it’s too easy to misconstrue.

However, some good advice about starting a fire is to get a good collection of kindling and firewood in place, which will need to be gathered, organised and delivered to the fireplace. A pail would be a good container to collect this stuff in. Frankly, it’s a pretty good place to light a fire, once full, too.

3. Teaching a fish to climb a tree, etc. (again, supposedly by Einstein, but never with any actual source)

Another one that seems fine to start with. Except for a few things: some fish can climb trees; if tree-climbing were a useful skill in the world of fish, you can damn sure more would evolve to; we’re not fish. That last one is particularly important.

Actually, if what this analogy is suggesting that only some students can achieve whatever the metaphorical tree-climbing represents, then surely the matter at hand is not whether more students can achieve it, but whether it’s valuable to. If it is, then as teachers shouldn’t we be providing every possible tree-climbing class going?

4. You understand 90% of what you do, but only 10% of what you read (and similar made-up figures).

coneI have never changed tides, developed a flying machine, fought in the Battle of the Somme, carved out an oxbow lake, cooked a Baked Alaska, voted in the House of Commons, spread Bubonic plague across a quarter of the globe…

Need I go on?

5. Teachers should be a “Guide on the Side” rather than the “Sage on the Stage”.

I’m not sure what the intended implication of this is, although it is clearly connected to number 4. I try to imagine it in the context of that other widely-understood teaching role: the driving instructor.

Tutee: I don’t really know how to get it to go forward…
Instructor: Well, what do you think you could try next?
Tutee: Do these pedals do something?
Instructor: Perhaps you could do an experiment to find out?
Tutee (after much exploration): well… one makes a lot of noise. The other two don’t seem to do anything…
Instructor: Well, your target now is to try to include a greater number of factors in your testing.

There’s a reason why “coaches” take experts and develop them, but novices are “taught”. I suspect that an instructor who insisted on acting as a Guide on the side, might soon be out of work.

I feel as though there are probably many more of these. Comments with other examples welcomed.


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8 thoughts on “5 nonsense sayings/analogies about education

  1. Tim Taylor 21 December 2013 at 4:58 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on Primary Blogging.

  2. teachingbattleground 21 December 2013 at 6:30 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  3. Ian Lynch 21 December 2013 at 8:39 pm Reply

    All it really means is that some people will interpret any ambiguity to further their own prejudice and that is true of all sides.

  4. Gavin Rayner 21 December 2013 at 10:32 pm Reply

    I like all those mantras. I am clearly too young/cynical (delete as appropriate).

    1. Don’t teach too much, too soon. Yes, there are protons, neutrons and electrons but particles will be just fine in Year 7.

    2. Teach a love of learning rather than knowledge. When the kids want to learn for themselves, the battle is won.

    3. Compare like for like. Don’t punish the weak kids because they are not as good as the top kids.

    4. Learn by doing. I have never killed a person so cannot say I truly understand what it’s like to do so. However, I make a great chilli.

    5. Kids are much smarter than we think they are. Get out of the way and let them learn.

    • Ian Lynch 21 December 2013 at 10:42 pm Reply

      Nah, kids can cope with Protons, Neutrons and Electrons in primary school. All a matter of delivery.


      • teachwell 12 February 2016 at 1:07 am Reply

        I was going to say exactly that!! I always taught it to them. Same thing with cells in the body. We can’t see everything we our eyes and they may as well learn that rather than wait until secondary with a head full of misconceptions. Primary kids are capable of a lot more than they are given credit for.

  5. Zena Martin 12 February 2016 at 8:09 am Reply

    Made up statistics – dangerous! Analogies that provide some enlightenment for people (albeit slightly different to different people) to be welcomed! Sure, they can get misunderstood or misused (Dave Gorman highlights this beautifully), but they’ve certainly got us thinking critically, discussing, interacting and challenging our thinking. And then there are those who would find these analogies unbearably metaphorical – I have been working with a boy who has the label of Aspergers, for example – he would be perplexed at the idea of filling pails and lighting fires in school! Should I teach this fish to climb a tree?
    Thanks, Michael, for making me think on this cold, dark, frosty morning 🙂

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